World War II anniversary reminds us of history's rhyme

December 08, 2018

ON this day 77 years ago, the Philippines found itself dragged into World War II as Japanese forces launched coordinated surprise attacks on US installations across the Pacific – at Pearl Harbor, at Wake Island and here at Clark Air Base.

A Japanese invasion soon followed, and even though Philippine and US forces fought back bravely, they were soon overwhelmed. Three long years of misery under Japanese occupation only ended after the deaths of nearly a million people and another series of savage battles that virtually destroyed Manila and many other places in the Philippines.

Very few who witnessed those dark events are still alive to share their stories, which is the sad but inevitable consequence of the passage of time. It is doubly unfortunate for us, because not only are the first-hand accounts of those momentous years being lost, so are the lessons from them.

Of course, the state of the world now is not what it was in the tense years leading up to the catastrophe of global war. Yet as we approach the Christmas holiday, what is supposed to be a “season of peace,” it seems that each day only brings news of increasing global tension and conflict. As it is said in a quote usually attributed to American writer Mark Twain “history doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.” At no time since the beginning of the last great war has the world been as polarized as it is now.

In the decades leading up to World War II, economic and nationalist tensions led to the rise of the Nazis in Germany and the Fascists in Italy and Spain; the breakdown of Imperial China; the rise of revolutionary conflict in Africa and Asia; and strengthened the Communists in Russia and the militarists in Japan.

Now we are witnessing another rise in virulent nationalism all across the globe, much of it driven, as it was last century, by racial and ethnic sentiments. Now, as then, economic inequalities are driving societies to extremes; just this week we have watched in alarm as Paris has been wracked by violence on a scale not seen since the days of the Commune, fueled by public discontent over the high cost of living.

We can, perhaps, sit back and congratulate ourselves for being a relatively peaceful little corner of the world, but even in our country there are uncomfortable divisions. Partisan debate has always been spirited among us Filipinos, but it has become downright aggressive. When something as innocent as a basketball playoff between two schools, for example, becomes mired in political controversy, we should ask ourselves if we are letting emotions and opinions get the better of us.

Remembering this day, “a day that will live in infamy,” as US President Franklin Roosevelt declared it, can serve to remind us how quickly aggressive differences and divisions can spiral out of control. Not many people may realize this, but the trigger that led Imperial Japan to attack the United States and bring the war to our own doorstep was the American imposition of heavy trade sanctions against it. Just as there are now, there were people then who did not believe things could get worse – right up until the first bombs started to fall.

Perhaps realizing all this, reminding ourselves of the painful lessons of the past, will help us to avoid a darker future. Our leaders and our people can’t control the words and actions of others; but the least we can do is set an example of reason, sobriety and goodwill in troubled times.